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A generational faith journey told by a fortysomething GenXer

Somewhere in our attic, there’s a copy of a 1990 Time Magazine emblazoned with “Twentysomething: laid back, late-blooming or just lost?” On my bookshelf is a twentysomething copy of Douglas Copeland’s Generation X: Tales for an Accelerated Culture (1991). Back in the 1990s, I was just out of college and newly married to my twentysomething husband with a Reality Bites (1994) poster hanging on the wall of our apartment. I read everything on GenX that I could get my hands on. I want to believe it came from a desire to understand better myself and those around me, but we GenXers did tend to lean a little towards self-preoccupation in those days.

Lately, I’ve been running across quite a few articles about what’s become of us GenXers, now in our early and mid 30s to late 40s and early 50s. I particularly enjoyed Whitney Collins’ witty “Generation X’s journey from jaded to sated.” I laughed out loud reading her descriptions of a GenX childhood (her son’s Nintendo 3DS “spews out more verbal encouragement and gold redemption coins and psychological incentive in 30 minutes than my generation heard in 15 years”) and our teenage years (we came of age back when very little could be done if you were born unattractive…. so we all just slumped along in our glasses and retainers and Jordache jeans that went all the way up to our flat chests”).

Humor aside, her descriptions fit right in with many of the articles written about Generation X. Born between 1960ish and 1980ish (depending on what article your reading), we were labeled the latchkey generation and fended for ourselves in an After School Special world with which most of our parents were unfamiliar. We grew up pragmatic, jaded by Boomer consumerism and seeking truth to the point of navel-gazing. The world of our childhoods was more diverse than our parents; our lunch tables and peer groups were gifted with a variety of ethnic, racial, cultural and (non)religious backgrounds.

While for most of us war was grainy images of conflicts we were too young to remember or were over before we were born, we had our share of cultural and political anxieties. We grew up wondering not if there would be a nuclear war but who would push the button first. We survived to see the end of the Cold War and the fall of the Soviet Union only to watch the Gulf War unfold. As burgeoning adults, we sat glued to our televisions on 9/11 and now we’re living through an historic economic recession in the middle of raising children (and worried we won’t have enough money for retirement).

As adults, we’re comfortable with change—we expect it. Born into a world without the personal computer, we saw the rise of the internet and became the smartphone generation. We are savy, skeptical and self-reliant. And we are more embracing of ethnicity and race than previous generations, highly educated, and we volunteer more than the other generations around us.

I resonated with a lot of what Collins says characterizes our generation today. For the most part, we aren’t consumed by our careers, defining what we do as quite different from who we are. We are aging gracefully, comfortable in our own skin and we’re more relational as parents. We accept impermanence and we’ve learned—or at least we are good way into learning—how to “let go and let life.”  

But as I contemplated all this I started wondering about generational characteristics when it comes to faith. I can’t speak for all GenXers, but I’m beginning to see how my own faith journey was influenced by the way these larger generational characteristics interacted with characteristics of church culture in the last 50 or so years—especially the prevalence of dispensationalism, a growing dissatisfaction with a consumerist driven church, and the birth of the North American emerging church movement.

My childhood was saturated with dispensationalism. You would think that if any theological community would be insulated from that it would be the Mennonites, but that wasn’t the case—at least in the large metro area I grew up in where we were rubbing shoulders with many different faiths and worldviews.

Throughout my junior high and high school years, this end-times and rapture theology saturated our experience—and the cultural Cold War anxieties only seemed to fuel the fever. Hollywood films like Red Dawn (1984) and Terminator (1984) got our attention in the theater while A Thief in the Night (1972) and The Late Great Planet Earth (1979) played in our churches and living rooms. In my corner of the world, we were a generation of kids pretty sure the world was going to hell—and thus we’d better be dang sure we were going to heaven.

Those expectations colored the way some of us looked at the future. As teens, we pondered the use of going to college or whether we’d ever get married. Why bother when the end could be no more than a few years down the road?

And joined to the long list of usual teen anxieties was the nagging question of whether our salvation was secure enough to get us in on the rapture before the world went to hell. It’s easy to see, then, why some of us grew up with the concept of salvation predominantly as a ticket to heaven and an escape from the upcoming tribulation.

As we got older and learned more about theology, however, dispensationalism came under the scrutiny of skeptical minds (at least it did in my corner of the world). With the gradual disintegration and fall of the Soviet Union and the thaw of the Cold War, the last tendrils of that theology started to unwind from our worldview.
In a way, in my corner of the world it left a vacuum of sorts. When life on earth didn’t end in nuclear war or the rapture, we started to seek a new paradigm in which to live—and, unfortunately, the church wasn’t providing that. We were dissatisfied and disillusioned with the church. Considering our generational tendency to seek truth, deconstruct structures and value authenticity, it makes sense to me why we found church culture, organization and experience wanting.

And my friends and I were scrutinizing and deconstructing everything. I remember long and winding conversations picking apart the worldviews and theologies in which my peers and I had grown up or encountered.  Like many of our generation, we’d rejected our culture’s Wall Street (1987) mentality, and as Christians, we saw the prosperity gospel as a sham; career, money and wealth weren’t the answer.

Wrestling with our dissatisfaction, we took various routes. As the relationship between religion and politics grew, some of my friends latched onto conservative political movements while others joined with more liberal political, social justice and religious movements. Some of those who articulated dissatisfaction with the consumer-driven church looked for more authentic experiences in other traditions. A lot of my college friends went into youth ministry, which almost seemed like a theology of its own. Some became the church of one. Others of us threw our energies into discipleship and service movements and ministries.

Only later did I discover that what my friends and I were experiencing was part of a much larger generational dissatisfaction with the organized church out of which rooted a European movement into North American soil: the emerging church movement.

I didn’t stumble upon this movement until the mid 2000s, when it was well under way. In the beginning, a lot of effort was put into defining exactly what this movement was about. Early on, it seemed to be mostly a conversation about everything from what needs to change to draw folks into existing churches to rethinking the whole way of doing church to figuring out how to get back to early church principles and life.

For me and some of my friends, it was an entry point—and a launching pad. It was an exciting place to be, a version of Morpheus’ now proverbial red pill. We weren’t alone in our dissatisfaction, and we were eager for change, something with which as a generation we were comfortable. We wanted a more authentic experience of what it meant to be God’s people and the emerging church movement was a fertile ground in which to start.

The movement ended up going a lot of different directions as key figures weaved in and out of its nebulous borders. Around and out of that movement came others like the organic church movement, monastic movement, missional theology, and simple church movement—and I know folks who are in or resonate with many of these. For me, here in the 2010s, Missio Alliance has become a home in my rethinking of what it means to be God’s people in a post-Christian world.

When I look back at my life and the characteristics that define my generation, I can see a lot of interplay between those characteristics and events and forces in church culture in my faith journey. The generational needs to confront and combat corruption and the need for stability and love are forces that play into our dissatisfaction with church and our need for authentic community. We are comfortable in a changing world, and a changing culture and church doesn’t threaten us—to the contrary, there is a good segment of us who are eager for that change.

Again, I am not speaking for all GenXers—and indeed, many GenX characteristics are shared across generations. My best friend is a Boomer, but we share many characteristics in our faith journeys. And my parents were deconstructing the church long before I started.  But it helps me to contemplate my own life and see where the path of my generation intersects and interacts with my faith journey.

However, as all this reflection has reminded me, navel-gazing is easy for my generation—maybe a little too easy. If Paul were writing to GenXers instead of the Colossians, perhaps he would’ve said: “Don’t shuffle along, eyes on your navel, absorbed with excessive self-contemplation. Look up, and be alert to what is going on around Christ—that is where the action is. See things from his perspective.”

Indeed, a well examined life is good one, but a well lived life is better.